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Friday, 12 November 2010

Bram Stoker vs Highgate Cemetery

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked by visitors whether Bram Stoker was influenced by Highgate Cemetery when writing his masterpiece, Dracula, I’d have been able to pick up nice big bottle of Ms Dior Cherie and a new pair of Grinders by now.
Over the years, numerous blogs and articles have alleged that Mr Stoker visited the cemetery regularly after having moved from Dublin to London in 1878.  He worked at the legendary Lyceum Theatre as both Sir Henry Irving’s personal secretary and the theatre’s business manager, and it’s claimed he used to wander Highgate Cemetery in his spare time, admiring the monuments and musing about what might happen if beams of sunlight fell directly onto the inhabitants of the cemetery’s numerous vaults.  According to these same sources, it was this train of thought that inspired Stoker to write Dracula, and that one Highgate vault in particular (exact location varying, depending on the source) was the influence behind Lucy Westenra’s mausoleum.  While there is no hard evidence in the cemetery’s archives that Mr Stoker visited Highgate, the striking architectural features, exclusivity and unique atmosphere have attracted visitors since 1839.  So it’d hardly come as a shock if he had ventured through the gates for a stroll at one time or another.
(Conversely, a large part of the novel was based in Eastern Europe, a part of the world that Mr Stoker never visited in person.  He instead undertook years of research about Eastern European folklore beforehand, heavily utilising the British Library on many occasion to do this)
So I decided to do a bit of digging to see what I could find and came up with a couple of interesting bits and bobs that I thought I’d share.
My first stop was to cross-reference online dissections or study guides of the novel I could find for anything Highgate-related, the best example being “Bram Stoker’s Notes on ‘Dracula’: a Facsimile” by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller.  In essence, this book consists of Bram Stoker’s original notes and diagrams compiled while he researched and planned Dracula, all of which have been painstakingly transcribed for the reader (at a cost of between £35-£50, depending on where you shop).  The only reference to Highgate I could find in it was footnote 243 on page 115 which states, “Many people assume that Lucy’s tomb is in Highgate Cemetery but we are never told where she is interred”.
While this doesn't confirm or deny anything, I found an article written by Andy Ferrar for the Garden Suburb Theatre Group’s production of Dracula.  It’s interesting from a geographical/logistical perspective and reads:
“It is often assumed that Lucy’s tomb would be in Highgate Cemetery; there is reference to Lucy’s body being interred in a tomb in a churchyard at ‘Kingstead’.  There is no such place, but in the novel, before going to the churchyard, Seward and Van Helsing dine at Jack Straw’s Castle.  They return to Hampstead Heath before catching a cab from Spaniard’s (the Spaniard’s Inn on Spaniard’s Lane).  It is possible that Kingstead is a fictitious name for Hampstead though the novel gives the distinct impression that the churchyard is ‘out of town’ from the two pubs, possibly putting it in the area now occupied by the Hampstead Garden Suburb.
There is a reference in the novel to the sun rising over Hampstead Hill seen from Lucy’s tomb.  There is also reference to a Shooter’s Hill on the side of the Heath where one of Lucy’s juvenile victim’s is found.  This would suggest that the tomb is to the West of Hampstead, in the direction of Shoot up Hill, which connects Kilburn to Cricklewood, possibly in the area around Childs Hill or what is now West Hampstead.
A recently published book on Haunted Places in Middlesex suggests that the inspiration for the tomb is the Rundell mausoleum in St. Mary’s Church Hendon.  Though it is unlikely the sun could be seen rising over Hampstead Hill from there except on the shortest of winter days.
Clearly the tomb was not intended to be in the secular burial ground at Highgate, given the clear references to a churchyard, but more likely (given Stoker’s apparently hazy geography) in a fictitious churchyard, nominally to the West of Hampstead”
With Andy’s suggestion that Lucy’s tomb is located to the west of Hampstead in mind, I checked Google Maps and noted with interest that Hampstead Cemetery just happens to fall directly west-south-west of the Heath.  The cemetery opened up in 1876, is 26 acres in size and is described on the Camden Council’s website as being, “attractively situated on a gentle north-west facing slope overlooking the Cricklewood sports ground”.  Like Highgate, Hampstead Cemetery is not a churchyard but is coincidentally the final resting place of Sir Henry Irving’s son, Henry (aka Harry) Brodribb Irving and his wife, Dorothea Frances Forster (pictured).

Another very plausible candidate is mentioned in Andy’s article, namely St Mary’s Churchyard in Hendon.  The oldest part of the church dates back to the 13th century and the church's own website claims "the massive tomb of Philip Rundell, just a few paces north of Chapman, is thought to have been Bram Stoker’s inspiration for ‘Kingstead Churchyard’ in his novel Dracula"

Now, here's where it gets interesting: shortly after having read the above, a cemetery colleague sent me a copy of a delightfully intriguing newspaper article relating to an act of desecration that took place in the very same churchyard nearly 200 years ago.   A couple of remarkable coincidences emerged relating to the surnames of two of the accused, as well as the names of the two local areas surrounding the churchyard, both of which suggest to me that St Mary's may very well be one of the inspirations behind Lucy's final resting place.
The story goes that on 13 September 1828, three men (Henry Holm, James Wood and Charles Charsley) broke into a vault in St Mary's churchyard and decapitated one of the corpses within.  They were apprehended and it emerged the owner of the severed head was Henry Holm's own mother, who’d been dead for 20 years.  The public were outraged but explaining his rationale to a packed courtroom on 01 December of the same year, Holm claimed that he did it purely in the interests of science and that he was attempting to trace the source of an inherited family illness (Holm was an ardent follower of Johann Spurzheim, one of the leading champions of phrenology).  The three men were found guilty but were not jailed, their saving grace being that they’d committed the misdemeanour “with the idea of furthering the interests of science”.  Holm was fined 50ℓ and both Wood and Charsley were fined 5ℓ each, to be paid to the King (this case is documented in “The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics and Literature of the Year 1828”, “The Gentlemen's Magazine & Historical Chronicle (Jul to Dec 1828, Vol XCVII) by Sylvanus Urban” and “The Middlesex Sessions (01/12/1828)).”
A somewhat ghoulish tale but if you’re familiar with Mr Stoker's novel (which was apparently called “The Un-Dead” before a last-minute change of heart by the author), you might have noticed the following:
St Mary’s Churchyard is roughly situated between Kingsbury (to the west) and Hampstead (to the east).  Kingstead is the name of the fictional churchyard described in the novel as being a “lonely churchyard” where Lucy is lain to rest.  Highgate Cemetery, at that time, was most certainly not a lonely churchyard but a large (and well guarded) commercial cemetery.
Two of the three desecrator’s surnames were Holm and Wood.  Holmwood is the surname of one of the main characters faced with the task of decapitating Lucy Westenra to save her from eternal damnation as a vampire.   
The connection between Stoker and St Mary’s Church in Hendon appears to have been made courtesy of the Pre Raphaelites, in particular Philip Burne-Jones, a relative late-comer to the movement.  He corresponded with Bram Stoker regularly and his painting “The Vampire” was exhibited the same year that “Dracula” was published (the painting was inspired a poem by Rudyard Kipling of the same name).  Since having worked for Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum, Stoker’s social status had been somewhat elevated and he rubbed shoulders with some of the most illustrious and well respected poets, actors and artists of the era, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (of whom the Pre Raphaelites were ardent admirers) as well as certain members of the Pre Raphaelite movement themselves.  It’s entirely possible that via his association with Philip Burne-Jones, Stoker heard about the decapitation tale through Thomas Woolner, the Pre Raphaelite sculptor and poet who lived in Hendon.  Mr Woolner would have certainly been aware of the scandal caused by that incident in 1828 due to the public outrage it had caused and he himself was buried in the same St Mary’s Churchyard in 1892.
A definite geographical hotbed of influence is another St Mary’s Churchyard, but this time in Whitby, Yorkshire, where a pivotal part of the novel takes place: Count Dracula lands on English soil in the form of a large dog after the Russian ship, the Demeter, crashes into the pier under the East Cliff.  The churchyard of St Mary’s is on the edge of this cliff and is also where both Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra enjoyed the seaside views on their favourite seat.  This same seat is where Lucy falls victim to the Count and is turned from being a sweet innocent into a vixen-like vampire.
The Pre Raphaelite connection offers up another interesting story that could possibly have inspired Stoker, although it relates more to Lucy Westenra’s radiant beauty after her ‘death’.  Stoker dedicates his novel to “My dear friend Hommy-Beg”, whose real name was Hall Caine, a fellow novelist.  Caine was one of Stoker’s most trusted friends, Hommy-Beg being a nickname given to him by his grandmother when he was a child.  It turns out that Mr Caine worked as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s secretary until Rossetti's death in 1882 and four years before the publication of Dracula, Caine published a book entitled, “Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti”.  In this book, he describes the exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti’s late wife, who’d died tragically in February 1862 as a result of a massive laudanum overdose.  Rossetti had placed a book of his poetry onto the pillow of her coffin before it was lowered into the Rossetti family plot on the west side of Highgate Cemetery. 

Things changed though.  Seven and a half years later, Rossetti was bullied into retrieving this book by his literary agency, the shady Charles Augustus Howell, for publication.  In Caine’s book, the brief description of the exhumation reads as follows:

“At length preliminaries were complete, and one night, seven and a half years after the burial, a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened.  The body is described as perfect upon coming to light.”
(The sad reality was that Elizabeth Siddal had suffered from ill health for most of her adult life, which resulted in her being pale, painfully thin and a severe drug addict - hardly the picture of someone glowing with vitality and good health.  Also, Howell was a known blackmailer and liar and was described by Algernon Swinburne, a friend of the Rossetti’s, as being, "the vilest wretch I ever came across".  Other less-than-complimentary descriptions included, "a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignant fellow" (Edward Burne-Jones) and “one of the biggest liars in existence" and "half mad" (Ford Madox Brown).  Howell acted as middleman when negotiating the exhumation order from the home office and it was he who’d claimed that Elizabeth was still as beautiful in death as she’d been in life when the lid of the coffin was raised (to help ease Rossetti’s guilty conscience, perhaps?).  Legend also dictates that Lizzie’s copper-coloured hair filled the coffin.  Contrary to popular belief, human hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after death – the skin shrinks back as the body dries out, making the hair and nails appear longer)

Despite how improbable the reality of Elizabeth’s Siddal’s perfectly preserved corpse might have been, could Stoker have been taken by the idea of immortal beauty based on Caine’s description of Elizabeth Siddal and included the concept in his novel?

When Dr Van Helsing attempts to convince Dr Seward of Lucy’s undead tendencies, they visit the mausoleum in Kingstead and open the coffin to reveal the contents within (Lucy had been dead for a week, by this point, and would have most definitely have begun to show signs of decomposition were she not a vampire):

“There lay Lucy, seemingly just as we had seen her the night before her funeral. She was, if possible, more radiantly beautiful than ever, and I could not believe that she was dead.  The lips were red, nay redder than before, and on the cheeks was a delicate bloom”

After so much talk of eternal damnation, exhumation, decapitation and other such horrors, it’s hardly a surprise that Bram Stoker opted for cremation at Golders Green Crematorium in 1912.

So… what do you think?

I believe that there’s always been a romantic aura surrounding Highgate Cemetery and can appreciate why people wish to believe that its beauty and mystery inspired one of the best Gothic horror novels ever written.  And, perhaps, certain elements just might have…
(All photographs used on this post are under copyrighted and are property of Sam Perrin)


As a post script to this, I came across a series of letters between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Augustus Howell taken from "The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Chelsea years, 1863-1872", written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and edited by William E Fredeman.
I found two letters in particular (dated 03 and 16 September 1869) to be especially interesting in that they paint Rossetti as a rather calm and collected individual who happily assisted Howell (referred to by Rossetti as “My dear Howell”) in obtaining the exhumation order required from the Home Office.  Rossetti provided Howell with the name of someone he believed to be the Home Secretary at the time, even going so far as to suggest writing to the man himself to advise that “an intimate friend has undertaken to manage matters for me”.  At one point Rossetti muses about whether his aunt had since been buried in the same plot, suggesting he was contemplating the practical and logistical aspects of accessing Lizzie’s coffin, and he also mentions that he hadn’t yet told his brother William about the planned exhumation (guilty conscience per chance, Mr Rossetti?).
He goes on to describe the book of poetry for retrieval as being “bound in rough calf and has I am almost sure red edges to the leaves” so as to not confuse it with the Bible he’d also placed in the same coffin.  He finishes and signs the letters “With a thousand thanks” and “Very affectionately yours” - hardly the language and tone of someone who’d allegedly been bullied into agreeing to the exhumation by Howell and was supposedly aghast at the prospect!
Copyright © Sam Perrin November 2010


  1. What a fascinating article, lots of research and food for thought. Hope to see more before long and meanwhile you've whetted my appetite to read Dracula... which I've somehow never yet got round to! I like the observation about Bram Stoker opting for cremation instead of burial.

  2. Thanks Fiend, glad you liked it. If you get the chance, read Dracula. It's a fabulous book!

  3. Thomas Woolner and his wife are buried at St Mary's, within a hundred yards of Philip Rundell and the Hayley vault.

  4. Hi Robert, interesting that the two plots are so close together - thanks for posting

  5. A first class article on the subject with much carefully researched detail on the background sources to Bram Stoker's Dracula novel. It's good to know that all the existing relevant information is now being so judiciously brought together for us in such a fascinating manner. I'm sure Mr Stoker salutes your well presented endeavours in the true spirit of Gothic story telling!

    1. What a lovely comment, thanks Geoff! Appreciate that